Political Splashes and Splats

Reading the Press archives, we see that the decade's politics was even weirder than we remembered -- a decade of surprising triumphs and, perhaps, none-too-surprising flops.

Future political scientists will no doubt catalog the Houston 1990s as the Bob Lanier years. But will they remember that it was an outdoor Western-theme party that helped drive Lanier into politics? Bob and Elyse Lanier were entertaining on the grounds of their River Oaks mansion in December 1989, in the teeth of a norther. But it wasn't just the weather that was cold. Bob had just been fired as chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority because he opposed mayor Kathy Whitmire's efforts to build a monorail system. Bizarrely, Whitmire decided to invade the Laniers' party and summoned Houston media to the event for a press conference. When the mayor showed up with the media pack in hot pursuit, Lanier confronted her in his mansion's living room and told her to behave like a guest or leave. She marched off, but the bad blood congealed.

In preparation for his mayoral campaign, Lanier gave the Press an extended interview in 1990, detailing the behind-the-scenes rift in the Houston establishment over the issue of light rail. That cover story, "Road Warrior," marked Lanier's first in-depth exposure as a potential candidate.

Once in office, the Lanier political machine rolled over City Council like a German panzer unit, leaving Mayor Bob free to be the municipal developer pushing neighborhoods- and parks-to-standards programs that provided a wealth of work for his favorite cronies. Lanier's building spree came at a fortuitous time, as the economy heated up and tax revenues filled previously empty city coffers. Lanier left office with his legend and popularity intact, and effectively named his successor, former police chief Lee Brown.

Lanier never seemed to work for his popularity -- the opposite of the decade's other big political winner, Sheila Jackson Lee. After losing three judicial contests in the 1980s, New York-born Lee was in danger of becoming the Harold Stassen of local Democratic politics.

As the Press noted at the time, "No-J [As in No-Judge] is a longtime Houston lawyer, appointed municipal judge and expiring Democratic candidate. She's haunted political get-togethers for years, introducing herself to anyone who might be useful in a future campaign. Says a friend, 'Won't someone elect this woman to something and get her off the streets?' "

In her maiden Council race, Lee benefited from a chain of falling dominoes. Congressman Mickey Leland had died in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1989, councilman Anthony Hall had vacated his seat to run in the special election to replace Leland, and Lee ran for Hall's at-large seat, facing former city controller Leonel Castillo. Hall's heated runoff against Craig Washington turned out a large black vote, sweeping Washington and Lee to victory.

Lee held the Council seat through three elections, but on the day she was sworn in for her third term, she filed plans to run for Congress, vying for the seat of the brilliant but erratic Washington.

Jackson won that race with help from her opponent. At best, Craig Washington always seemed an unlikely politician. In his previous race for the congressional seat, Washington emitted plenty of warning signals that constituents would have to accept him on his terms... or else. In the Press's second issue (November 16, 1989), the candidate dismissed questions about his failure to pay taxes: "I haven't paid my Foley's bill either, and who cares? The voters aren't interested."

In his first run for Congress, Washington refused Hall's challenge to take a drug test and did nothing to hide an unorthodox lifestyle: His family included children by a wife, an ex-girlfriend he was accused of assaulting and a companion he later married. Although the three women weren't on speaking terms with one another, they all worked in his campaign. Explained Washington, "It's a measure of love and the fact this is larger than me."

Unfortunately, nothing turned out to be larger than the congressman's self-regard. After a couple of good terms, he turned self-destructive, voting against the Space Station, the Super Collider and even a resolution commending U.S. troops in the Gulf War. By 1994 he had so thoroughly alienated Houston's downtown power structure that folks such as Enron's Ken Lay, a Republican, were willing to fund the challenge by Lee, an unabashed liberal. Washington, who'd built no campaign war chest during his years in office, was routed by Lee in the primary.

Colleagues had assumed that Washington's congressional seat was his for life, given his rock-ribbed liberal district, and he had nothing to blame for the loss but his own arrogance and political incompetence. Now an Austin lobbyist and lawyer, living on a small spread in nearby Bastrop, Washington has plenty of time as a gentleman rancher to ponder what could have been, to wonder how much national coverage his golden tongue could have garnered had he, rather than the camera-grabbing Lee, sat on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment brawl.

But Washington doesn't have a clear claim to the decade's greatest political collapse; he shares it with hapless Lloyd Kelley, the city controller who began his stint in office looking like a future mayor and ended with his reputation in tatters.

Not that mayor was grand enough for Kelley. He signaled his megalomaniacal political aspirations by spending time away from his office to campaign for Bob Dole in the New Hampshire presidential primary.

In the year that followed, the Press's cover lampooned Kelley as a floppy-eared pooch; the Houston Chronicle skewered him for giving a crony a fat contract; and Channel 13's undercover man Wayne Dolcefino captured footage of Kelley cavorting with his kids and a blond aide at Splashtown, walking his dog down Heights streets and sightseeing across Texas -- all on office time.

Naturally, he lost the election to challenger Sylvia Garcia. When her troops took over the office in 1998, they found a media setup worthy of a national campaign: three TV sets, complete with VCRs, presumably to monitor all the favorable stories that never came. Kelley, now out of politics, reportedly plans to move to another city.

Tim Fleck wrote the cover story for the Houston Press's first issue ("Fire Sale of the Inanities," November 9, 1989) and continues to spread political terror as the Insider.


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